[Marxism] Cartier-Bresson: A Photographer Comes Into Sharper Focus

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Wed Feb 28 05:38:54 MST 2007

The Wall Street Journal 		
February 28, 2007
A Photographer Comes Into Sharper Focus
February 28, 2007; Page D9

New York

Henri Cartier-Bresson was a catch-and-release photographer. 
The art as he saw it was to capture, however briefly, and in a
black-and-white rectangle, the dynamic elements of a glimpsed reality
before it vanished forever. "The world is being created every
minute," he once said. "The world is falling to pieces every minute."

It was enough for him to see on a contact sheet that here and there
he had caught life on the fly. He kept score of his successes with
red grease pencil and didn't need so much to have the image blown up
and mounted on a wall. The trophy was knowing that once in a while he
had outwitted the fugitive world.

As you visit "Henri Cartier-Bresson's Scrapbook: Photographs
1932-1945," the superb show that runs through April 29 at the
International Center of Photography here, it helps to keep in mind
how much he valued process over product. Otherwise, you may be
disappointed that almost all of the nearly 300 prints on the walls
and in the vitrines are small, most no more than 3½ inches by 4¾
inches, and of less than sterling quality. Cartier-Bresson himself
denigrated his early prints of these negatives and favored later
versions with more contrast.

This 1933 shot of boys playing in Seville, Spain, is often mistaken
for a wartime photograph.

The dazzlement of the scrapbook comes from the historic stature of
the images, not their tonal quality. The 346 examples that he pasted
into an album in 1945-46 -- an item he treasured until his death in
2004 -- constitute one of the supreme achievements in 20th-century
photography. Martine Franck, the photographer's widow, and Agnes Sie,
director of the Fondation Cartier-Bresson, which originated this show
in Paris, are to be commended for bringing this material into sharper

Scholars will feast on the new information in the catalog essays for
this show about the uncommonly fertile period when the young artist,
equipped with a sleek 35mm Leica, and under the influence of
surrealism, went hunting for signs of the uncanny on trips throughout
Europe and North America.

During this time in his life, before he chose to earn a living from
assigned stories as a member of Magnum Photos, the independent agency
he helped to found in 1947, he was pursuing no particular editorial
directives. His camera was simply a tool with which he uncovered a
myriad of enigmatic clues to a harsh reality. He circulated among the
destitute sleeping in the streets and parks of Paris and Marseille;
with a trio of sexually ambiguous Spaniards as one of them had a
haircut; in Mexican brothels; and within the empty staircases and
squares of Italian towns. He was as at ease with children as with

Many of these famous pictures from the early '30s combine an
awareness of the world-wide Depression with an undertone of comedy or
dread that has little to do with politics. The pack of boys playing
in the rubble of a Seville street has often been interpreted as a war
image, especially as one of the boys is on crutches. But the date of
the picture, 1933, precedes the Spanish Civil War by three years. It
is perhaps more accurate to read it as being about quotidian
destruction and the childish pleasures of acting out for an attentive

International Center of Photography
Through April 29

Efforts to turn Cartier-Bresson into a mere historian or reporter are
doomed to fail. One of the delights of the show is the group of
pictures he made in London in 1937. He was asked by a magazine to
photograph George VI's coronation. Typically, he came back without a
single image of the king. Instead, he focused on the crowds straining
to see anything of the event and sitting around after the parade had
gone by. How uninhibited in their desires people look when looking is
a pervasive theme in Cartier-Bresson's oeuvre. He had an indulgent
affection for the English (and a loathing for Germans), portraying
the throngs here as besotted but harmless in their surrender to pomp
and ceremony.

The scrapbook was the quarry from which two celebrated exhibitions at
the Museum of Modern Art were carved. The first, in 1947, established
Cartier-Bresson as a guiding spirit of street photography. About a
dozen of the original enlargements from that show, which consisted of
163 photographs, have been rounded up by ICP. In the odd style of the
time, they were mounted on wood.

The MoMA show had originated as a posthumous homage, as the museum's
photography curator, Beaumont Newhall, and his wife, Nancy, believed
that Cartier-Bresson had been killed in 1942. In fact, from 1940 to
1943 he was a prisoner of war in occupied France, until escaping, on
his third attempt, and hiding out with forged papers on a farm in the
Loire valley. The family that sheltered him was not so fortunate. An
informer betrayed them to the Gestapo, and all but the farmer's wife
perished at Buchenwald.

The vitrines at ICP feature correspondence with the Newhalls, a 1947
article from the New York Post welcoming the photographer to New
York, a laudatory essay on his work by Lincoln Kirstein, as well as
his membership card in the Free French. An unusual series of pictures
on the last wall shows the interrogation in August 1944 of the actor
Sacha Guitry, suspected (later cleared) of being a German

Many of the scrapbook images also appeared in another landmark MoMA
show, organized in 1987 by Peter Galassi, that studied the
exceptional 1932-34 period of Cartier-Bresson's career when he was
first realizing the potential of small-camera photography and his own
eye. "In a white streak of invention, he proved that a photographer
can handle the world as freely as a sculptor handles clay," Mr.
Galassi has written.

His indifference to the craft of printing has made Cartier-Bresson an
artist best appreciated in books. His prints were never highly prized
by the art market in his lifetime. Prices for his work did not crack
the $100,000 barrier until a large late print of "On the Banks of the
Marne" sold for $132,000 at Christie's in 2005. Scores of lesser
photographers have attracted far greater sums from collectors -- more
proof, if any was needed, that auctions are poor indexes of artistic

What Cartier-Bresson seldom lacked was acclaim or self-confidence.
ICP reminds us of this with an amusing slide show of images with his
recorded commentary from 1973. Always prone to fiats and aphorisms,
he grew more incendiary late in life, often dismissing photography as
inferior to drawing and playing down his own gifts. No doubt this was
a healthy reaction to seeing himself called a genius too many times
in print.

"It's a question of alertness," he says on the tape. "It doesn't take
any brains. It takes sensitivity, a finger, and two legs." We need
only turn to the scrapbook, and a marvelous 1933 photograph, to
contradict him. Shot from the hip, it shows his pants leg and bare
foot stretched along a wall near Sienna. Only an artist educated in
the distorted views of De Chirico and Dalí would have seen a picture
in this scene. And he didn't even need two legs.

Mr. Woodward is an arts critic in New York.

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